The kingdom of Christ comes through spiritual conviction

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Sermon for Cantate

Isaiah 12:1-6  +  James 1:16-21  +  John 16:5-15

Christians want to be where Jesus is.  It’s the nature of a Christian.  Not just to “believe” that Jesus lived, died, and rose again.  Not just to “believe” that Jesus is out there somewhere.  But to want to be where Jesus is, not to give Him things, but to receive mercy and help and forgiveness and guidance from Him, to receive comfort and peace from His presence.  It’s why Christians long for Sunday morning, long to hear the Word of Jesus, to receive strength and guidance from Jesus, and to receive His body and blood in the Sacrament.

So it’s hard for us to understand how Jesus could say what He said to His disciples on Maundy Thursday evening. “It is to your advantage that I go away.”  He had told His disciples on that Maundy Thursday that He was going to the Father, going to the one who sent Him, and they were sorrowful.  But Jesus assured them, “It is to your advantage that I go away.”  Why?  Because “if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.

This “Helper” must be pretty special if His coming is better for Jesus’ disciples than having Jesus Himself staying with them. Who is this Helper? And why is His coming so important?

This Helper is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth.  We make a mistake if we think of Him as a “less important” Person in the Holy Trinity.  No, Jesus praises the Spirit highly, even as the Spirit brings glory back to Jesus.  It’s the Spirit of God who comes in Word and Sacrament and brings Jesus to us, not just in one room in one city in one country, but to Christians around the world in every place. It’s by the work of the Spirit of God that the kingdom of Christ comes and is built on earth and continues to be built until the day when Jesus returns.  What do we pray in the Lord’s Prayer?

The Second Petition: Thy kingdom come. What does this mean? —The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also. How does God’s kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.

Thy kingdom come, we pray.  But we’re not praying there for Jesus to return.  In fact, we’re actually praying for Jesus to postpone His return until the Spirit has finished doing His work among us and in the world, His work of building the kingdom of Jesus, His work of spiritual conviction.

Jesus promises his sorrowful disciples that, after He leaves to return to the Father, He will send the Helper.  And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.  How will He do this convicting?  Not through physical force or violence.  Not through political pressure or legal prosecution.  Not through pounding the Ten Commandments into the laws of the land.  See, this spiritual kingdom of Jesus is not a kingdom that comes visibly or with outward force, like the religion of Islam. It comes through the Word of God as it is preached among the nations, the “sword of the Spirit,” as Paul calls it.  The Spirit will convict the world with words that cut to the heart.  Christians have been no weapons, either of offense or of defense, except the spiritual kind, except for the Word of God that is sharper than any two-edged sword.  The kingdom of Christ comes invisibly as the Spirit convicts and pronounces judgment upon the world through the Word.

Of what does the Spirit convict the world?  He will convict the world of sin.  It seems like that would be easy enough.  Sin is everywhere.  Sin is so obvious.  Bombings.  Abortion doctors mutilating newborn babies, and no one seems to care. Or worse, the same people who become appalled at those mutilations have seemingly grown numb to the millions of “regular” abortions of which our country approves in its laws.  Homosexuality being not only tolerated in our world today, but celebrated and promoted.  Greed and adultery and drunkenness and idolatry, sex outside of marriage—it’s the new normal and accepted practice in our culture. Yes, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin.

But it goes deeper than that. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will convict the world of sin because they do not believe in Me.  The unbelieving world may acknowledge some of its immorality as truly sinful and immoral.  But the one sin they will not acknowledge as sin is what Jesus says here, not believing in Jesus.  That is the chief sin.  Take the nicest person, the most charitable, the most religious people in the world.  The Holy Spirit convicts them all for not believing in Jesus.

Why is that the chief sin? Because faith in Christ is the only way to escape condemnation for sin.  Sin is everywhere.  It’s in our thoughts, words and deeds.  It’s in everyone born into this world.  But where there is faith in Christ, who died for the sins of the world, all sins are blotted out in God’s sight.  Where there is no faith in Christ, there is only sin and condemnation and guilt.  If the world would acknowledge its sins and believe in Christ who died for them all, then the world would be forgiven.  But they will not.  And so the Holy Spirit convicts them.

You, too, would stand convicted with the world, because no one here can claim to be sinless or more deserving of God’s grace than anyone else in the world.  If you think you’ve kept your nose cleaner than others, if you want God to compare you with others and praise you for not being quite as sinful, then you will face His wrath and His strict judgment.  Because to believe in Jesus is to acknowledge that you deserve nothing but condemnation from God, and yet to trust that, for Jesus’ sake alone, God will not condemn you, because He has taken your sins and paid for them all with the blood of the Lamb of God.

Of what does the Spirit convict the world?  He will convict the world of righteousness.  How is that?  How can the world be convicted of righteousness?  People do good things all the time.  Yes, there are bad people out there.  But there are also good people out there.  Of course there are!  Just ask them!  There are people who are kind to others, charitable, hard-working, faithful spouses.  Both Christians and non-Christians can be “good people.”

But that does not make a person righteous before God.  What does Jesus say righteousness is?  Because I go to My Father and you see Me no more.  What’s that?  Righteousness is Jesus going to the Father?  No, no.  Righteousness is me paying my taxes, right?  Righteousness is coming to church!  Righteousness is disapproving of all the immorality around us.

No.  Jesus says that righteousness is wrapped up in Him alone.  The righteousness that counts before God has nothing whatsoever to do with our good deeds.  It is the righteousness of faith in Christ.

There’s a difference between being a “good person” and being a “Christian.”  Everyone should be good and live outwardly according to the Law of God.  But being a Christian means seeking God’s approval in Christ alone, who has gone to the Father.  Christian righteousness is to plead only the righteousness of Christ before God.  It’s a righteousness that can’t be seen, because it rests with Jesus, and we see Him no more.  But that also means it’s a righteousness that’s certain, because it doesn’t depend on our being “good people.”

Nonetheless, Christians are becoming good people.  Notice, I didn’t say that Christians are good people.  Christians are grafted into Christ by faith, and so the goodness of Christ grows in us, like branches that grow from a vine.  And so Christians are at the same time perfect in righteousness in God’s sight through faith, and growing in righteousness as we become imitators of God, as dearly loved children.  The world knows nothing of this.  Everything that does not proceed from faith is sin, God says.  And so the Holy Spirit convicts the world.

Of what does the Spirit convict the world?  He will convict the world of judgment. The world judges true Christians harshly. The world can’t stand to be convicted.  And so it persecutes Christians and makes them carry a heavy cross.  It will get harder and harder for Christians in this world as the world’s judgment approaches, as the Holy Spirit’s conviction spreads and reveals the wrath of God against all the ungodliness of men.  And like a cornered wild animal, the world will lash out at God’s people in a final attempt to escape.

But they won’t escape because the ruler of this world is judged.  Satan, the devil, is the ruler of this world.  He cannot escape his judgment, because he stands judged already, and all who remain in his kingdom will share in his condemnation.  Just when the cross that we bear as Christians seems unbearable, just when it seems like the world must win, then Christ will come with His help and comfort.  Yes, at the end of the world.  But even before then, He comes by His Spirit and promises that even here, even now, you will not be tempted beyond what you can bear, but when you are tempted, He will provide an escape so that you can bear up under it.

The Holy Spirit will accomplish this work.  Powerfully and invisibly.  And through His convicting work, some will feel God’s wrath and will repent and seek refuge in Christ before it’s too late.  Some will come out of the world and come into Christ’s kingdom where we are safe from God’s wrath.

It’s hard, not to be able to see this or measure it scientifically.  It’s hard, not to see Jesus and have Him here visibly among us, because Christians want to be where Jesus is.  But as He told His disciples, so He tells you.  It’s to your advantage that He removed His visible presence from among us.  Because now we have His Spirit working powerfully among us and through us in the world, bringing Jesus to us in a real but invisible way, so that whenever we hear the Word of Jesus and receive His Sacrament, we are where Jesus is.  The kingdom of Christ comes through spiritual conviction.  And it is the Spirit of God who has brought you into that kingdom, where Christ rules in your hearts by faith, so that you can sing with Isaiah, “O LORD, I will praise You;  Though You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; ‘For YAH, the LORD, is my strength and song; He also has become my salvation.’” Amen.

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